Book Quote:

“You haven’t noticed, Leo, but we are engaged in a silent battle for our nation’s survival. It has nothing to do with whether or not Stalin went too far.  He did.  Of course he did. But we cannot change the past. And our authority is based on the past. We must behave as we have always behaved: with an iron rule. We cannot admit mistakes and then hope that our citizens will love us all the same. It is unlikely
we will ever be loved, so we must be feared.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Sudheer Apte (MAY 21, 2009)

Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a loyal member of the state security commission in the Stalinist Soviet Union of the nineteen-fifties, was introduced as a conflicted crime investigator in Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, Child 44. In that enormously entertaining thriller, Smith provided the backdrop of the authoritarian state that brooks no dissent, where security apparatchiks like Leo Demidov must bend their own judgement regarding others’ innocence and guilt, and must become ruthless instruments of its repression.

In The Secret Speech, Smith’s second novel, it is 1956. Not only has Stalin been dead for three years, but his successor Khrushchev has just given his famous speech of February 1956. In this speech, The Personality Cult and its Consequences, given to the twentieth party congress in a closed session, Khrushchev criticized Stalin’s past purges of the army and the party and his paranoid pursuit of “enemies of the state.” Khrushchev called for certain political reforms and a return to true Leninist doctrine.

Khrushchev’s incendiary speech was read out at secret party meetings and disseminated to party workers throughout the USSR. It caused great confusion in the ranks, especially among the Chekists, i.e., members of the security apparatus, who had been at the forefront of Stalin’s actions and of propaganda extolling Stalin.

In Smith’s novel, the speech is distributed to several of the characters, including Leo Demidov, with far-reaching consequences because of their backgrounds. One of Demidov’s old colleagues is driven to a tragic end, while Demidov’s own job is affected.

Demidov has been put in charge of a small criminal investigation department, allowing him to temporarily forget his own past as a member of the feared MGB, a predecessor to the KGB. But a series of murders of prominent state collaborators leads him to a suspect who is a ghost from his own past seven years ago, when he had infiltrated the Orthodox priesthood and betrayed a priest. Following the case will uncover many confusing secrets and unexpected alliances, and it will greatly endanger his own family.

When the novel begins, Demidov’s own life is returning to normal. He and his wife have adopted two little girls who are now teenagers, who used to be the chidren of one of his past victims. But the older girl, Zoya, is unable to forget that Demidov was the killer of her real parents, and she is unwilling to forgive. Somewhat unlikely events conspire to pull his family into his new murder case, and much suffering ensues.

The action of the novel takes us to a Soviet gulag in the far east, and then to Hungary in the midst of its revolt of October 1956. We see Stalin’s statue fall and the state security police fire on the demonstrators, which include characters we know.

The novel benefits from Smith’s weaving of historic events into the fabric of his characters’ lives. The backdrop of the Soviet Union, with its necessary secrecy and inner conflict, makes it easy to connect with the characters. As a thriller, though, it resorts to somewhat formulaic, deus-ex-machina plot elements. The identity of the killer, for example, is hard to believe, and the prisoners’ escape from the gulag has a slick, Hollywood quality to it. Overall, an enjoyable story, well told.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 156 readers
PUBLISHER: Grand Central Publishing (May 19, 2009)
REVIEWER: Sudheer Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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May 21, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Russia, Sleuths Series, Thriller/Spy/Caper

One Response

  1. Mary Whipple - May 22, 2009

    Hi, Sudheer. I really liked CHILD 44, the previous novel in what will surely become a series, but it was very violent. Is this novel as violent as that one? It was certainly a page-turner! Best, Mary

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